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Why "Free Houses for Indians" Is a Myth

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One of the most prevalent and enduring myths out there is that aboriginal peoples receive "free houses." For the purpose of this article I'm going to focus specifically on this myth, saving housing conditions on reserve for later.

I think it's useful to acknowledge that there are different understandings of whether native housing is a right.

If you take a strict legal positivist approach which assumes the only valid perspective is the one that is affirmed by current Canadian law, that's fine. But please recognize that legal positivism does not lead to objective truth outside of '"this is what the law says right now."

I bring this up because part of learning about issues like housing, or education, or treaties is in understanding that aboriginal peoples do not necessarily agree with the Canadian state about how things were, are, or should be. This does not make us wrong and it does not make the Canadian state right. I am not going to argue one way or the other in this article, because that would be a very long post. I am just going to summarise the positions.

Housing as an Aboriginal or treaty right

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples addressed the different perspectives on housing as a right in its final report:

...The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations stated that "[S]helter in the form of housing, renovations, and related infrastructure is a treaty right, and forms part of the federal trust and fiduciary responsibility. [This position derives] from the special Indian-Crown relationship dating back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, enhanced by section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867 and sections 25 and 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982."

What "housing as an aboriginal or treaty right" means to different indigenous peoples and organisations varies greatly. To some it means 100 per cent paid for, provided at no-cost funding, while for others it means guaranteed subsidies to help with construction and operation costs, with Bands collecting rent or offering rent-to-own regimes as they wish.

Housing as social policy

From the same report:

To date, the federal government has not recognized a universal entitlement to government-financed housing as either a treaty right or an Aboriginal right. It has taken the position that assistance for housing is provided as a matter of social policy, and its Aboriginal housing policy has been based on this premise. Thus, assistance has been based on 'need'.

The Canadian government then argues that providing housing assistance to those in need (native or not) is a social policy objective for all Canadians. This is the current official approach to native housing in Canada.

There are two main categories of housing on reserve:

  • market-based housing
  • non-profit social housing

Market-based housing on reserve

Market-based housing refers to households paying the full cost associated with purchasing or renting their housing. This is not free housing.

As of 2006, home ownership rates on reserve were at 31 per cent, compared to 69 per cent among off reserve Canadians. So while the overall home ownership rate is significantly lower on reserve than off, many Canadians are not aware that there is any home ownership on reserve at all.

There are barriers to market-based housing on reserve which you should understand. Land on reserve is held in common, and not split into individual properties owned by individual people. You can be given permission to possess a piece of land and use it, but this does not mean you own it.

Most people require some sort of loan to purchase a home, and in order to secure that financing you must have collateral (something that can be seized and sold off in order to pay your debt). There are severe Indian Act limitations to seizing property on-reserve, making it extremely difficult to secure financing for anything, whether you intend to buy or build a house, start a business, do renovations or what have you. This is not an endorsement of attempts to unilaterally impose private property regimes on reserve, I'm just explaining things.

There are various programs in place, with new ones being developed on a community by community basis, to address the issue of financing. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) administers Ministerial Loan Guarantees which are the most common and provide security for lenders. However, the First Nation is ultimately on the hook if there is a default and not all communities can cover that cost -- so these loan guarantees are not always available.

So far no one approach has been successful enough to work in every situation, and home ownership on reserve varies from "a lot" to "almost none" depending on the community.

Income is also another obvious barrier to accessing market-based housing on reserve, which brings us to the second category.

Non-profit social housing

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Agency (CMHC) delivers housing programs and services across the country to all Canadians under the National Housing Act:

s.3 "The purpose of this Act, in relation to financing for housing, is to promote housing affordability and choice, to facilitate access to, and competition and efficiency in the provision of, housing finance, to protect the availability of adequate funding for housing at low cost, and generally to contribute to the well-being of the housing sector in the national economy."

Section 95 of this Act deals with social housing, and programs under this section include subsidies for non-profit rental housing on reserve (and elsewhere throughout Canada). If I haven't pounded this fact in enough, let me do it once more: this is not a program that only First Nations people benefit from. There are tens of thousands of Canadians living in co-op housing built with the help of subsidies under s.95.

The Co-Operative Housing Federation of Canada deals with social housing off reserve, but these FAQ answers apply on reserve as well:

The members do not own equity in their housing. If they move, their home is returned to the co‑op [the Band], to be offered to another individual or family who needs an affordable home.

Some co‑op households pay a reduced monthly rent (housing charge) geared to their income. Government funds cover the difference between this payment and the co‑op's full charge. Other households pay the full monthly charge based on cost.

Non-profit social housing is often called Band Housing on-reserve, and 57 per cent of on-reserve people lived in these units as of 2006.

AANDC [alone or via the CMHC] does not cover the full cost of housing. In addition to government funding, First Nations and their residents are expected to secure funding from other sources for their housing needs, including shelter charges and private sector loans.

All people in Canada who are eligible for social assistance can be issued shelter allowances. This is meant to help low income individuals meet their shelter expenses (rent, utilities) and is based on provincial tables.

If you want to call what I've described "free housing," then you need to recognize that this situation is not confined to First Nations. If the only complaints on s.95 housing and/or shelter allowances are aimed at First Nations, then those arguments are inherently racist.

However I think the real issue is that most people honestly don't understand housing on-reserve, and because the issue is complicated, people rely on word of mouth. I'm hoping this article helps clear up some of the confusion.

A longer version of this article was published on the author's blog, âpihtawikosisân.